Thursday, 27 November 2014

The Cambridge matriarch

She began life as the youngest granddaughter of a king. She grew up in a borrowed court as her father stood in for big brothers who were too busy to rule one of their realms. She was ridiculed as unattractive and married off by her matchmaking cousin to a prince with no land and no prospects. And yet she ended up as the mother of a queen and the matriarch of a dynasty that will now rule Britain until well into the 22nd century at least. Today is the anniversary of  the birth of Mary Adelaide, Princess of Cambridge who was known to history as Fat Mary but whose descendants now hold the throne.

Mary Adelaide, Princess of Cambridge and Princess of Teck
1833 - 1897

In later life, Mary Adelaide is every inch the matriarch and her last photos show her decked in Victorian finery trimmed with jewels. A quick glance shows a regal looking woman dressed to impress. But for much of her life, Mary was a poor relation and then some. She was born in Hanover on November 27th 1833 because her father, Prince Adolphus, was minding the royal shop for his brother, William IV. William was King of Hanover just like his own sibling, George IV, had been before him but the British throne took up more of their time and so George had dispatched Adolphus there to rule in his place. But the Cambridge family knew they were just passing through.

Adolphus, Duke of Cambridge and father of Mary Adelaide

In 1837 William IV was succeeded by his niece, Victoria, to the throne of Britain but the law in Hanover meant a girl wasn't getting the throne. So the kingdom passed to yet another of Adolphus' brothers, Ernest Augustus, and the Cambridge family headed to London. They set up home in Kensington Palace and Mary Adelaide, with her sister Augusta, carried out royal duties. But Augusta didn't hang around long. She was eleven years older than Mary Adelaide and in her early twenties followed that well worn path of marrying a distant cousin. By 1843, ten year old Mary was alone in the royal nursery. And she wouldn't hear wedding bells of her own for another two decades.

Mary Adelaide's sister, Augusta, in later life

Mary struggled to find a royal husband. By the time she was old enough to say 'I do', Queen Victoria had a growing stable of daughters and the royal houses of Europe started looking to them rather than poor cousins as potential brides. Mary Adelaide was also teased for her appearance. She was called 'Fat Mary'. Her father was the youngest surviving son of George III and so Mary's marriage chances were pretty low - she wasn't rich compared to other royal ladies, her regal blood line meant she would never be queen and there were far more important British princesses already waiting to snap up husbands. But she was still a princess and marrying a commoner was off the list.

But Queen Victoria liked nothing better than a bit of match making and so, when cousin Mary hit thirty, she got out her little black book of blue blooded cousins and found her a hubby. He was a prince, poorer than her and had no succession rights of his own anywhere but he was a roya. And so Mary of Cambridge married Francis of Teck at St Anne's Church in Kew on June 12th 1866 when the bride was 32 and the groom aged 28. They would have four children - Mary, Adolphus, Francis and Alexander. But this princess of Cambridge was anything but settled yet.

Mary Adelaide, Princess of Teck, with her four children

Mary Adelaide and her husband had a limited income and a large part of that came from the lady of the house through her allowance for carrying out royal duties. By 1883 the family was in so much debt they had to flee abroad while their creditors looked for payment and the Tecks learned to live more frugally.  In 1885 they returned and set up home at White Lodge in Richmond Park. And the poor relation suddenly came into her own.

White Lodge, Richmond Park was Mary Adelaide's home on her return from exile

Mary Adelaide had been the subject of Queen Victoria's avid match making herself and she now set about turning the monarch's hobby to her advantage. She had one daughter to place on the marriage market but Mary of Teck was a formidable proposition. She was descended from George III, she had a royal lineage and she had shown herself already to be eminently sensible and devoted to duty. The old queen liked what she saw and in 1891 Mary of Teck became engaged to Albert Victor, heir of Victoria's heir. When he died six weeks later, Mary Adelaide must have thought her chances of royal glory were gone but Victoria was having none of that. Mary of Teck married Albert Victor's brother, George, in 1893.

Mary Adelaide, Francis and their daughter, Mary, soon after her birth 

By 1897, the new Duke and Duchess of York had two sons and a baby daughter. Mary Adelaide had, in fifteen years, gone from broke cousin to granny of a future king. She died on October 27th 1897 before her daughter became queen consort but her legacy was secure. Despite a life of making ends meet, exile and occasional pity, this princess triumphed in the end. Her great granddaughter is now the Queen and three generations of men stretch out after her, ready to take the throne. The youngest is little George, Prince of Cambridge. And so, 181 years after her birth, Mary Adelaide has become the Cambridge matriarch.

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